Massacre without mastermind – A critical look at the investigation into the November 2015 Paris attacks

Oussama Atar, the main defendant at the upcoming trial of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks

It was a devastating act of violence. The worst in France since World War II. 130 victims died when terrorists attacked several locations in Paris on the evening of November 13, 2015, a massacre soon claimed by the so-called Islamic State. On September 8,  a trial will start against twenty defendants. Most of them have been charged as accomplices. Only one is prosecuted as a perpetrator and one as a leader of the plot. This article is meant to be a critical review of the investigation, specifically looking into the question why several individuals once named as masterminds have been omitted, and how convincing the case against that lonely leader really is. To do so, we confronted the 562 pages of the réquisitoire définitif in which the French Parquet national antiterroriste made its case, with thousands of pages of underlying documents, official documents from separate investigations in several countries, and carefully selected open source information. The worrying conclusion is that in order to be fair, the trial should conclude without a mastermind.

 “A body torn to pieces was discovered lying on the ground in the rue de la Cokerie. The right and left leg could be found on the corner of the rue de la Cokerie and the impasse de la Cokerie, the head on the road of the impasse de la Cokerie, the right arm without its hand on the sidewalk of the impasse de la Cokerie, and the left arm on the avenue du Stade de France.” This is how the remains of one of the terrorists are described in the réquisitoire définitif.(1) The specified locations cover a distance of fifty meters near the sports venue Stade de France. “The death, which occurred instantaneously, is the consequence of multiple trauma with fragmentation of the body in connection with the use of an explosive device”, the autopsy report is cited. It is only one of several graphic descriptions pointing out the carnage that the terrorists both inflicted on their victims and on themselves. But they also demonstrate how easy it was to answer the principal question in every criminal investigation: who did it? With the corpses of the terrorists available, fingerprints and DNA enabled a certain and in most cases rapid identification.

If it weren’t for his death during the November 18, 2015 police operation in Saint-Denis, the notorious Abdel Hamid Abaaoud likely would be prosecuted as an organizer of the Paris attacks

Because prosecution ends once a suspect’s death is proven, most of the perpetrators won’t be tried. The only defendant who is charged as a co-perpetrator is Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving suspect who went to the scene. In cases of terrorism, however, it is often more important to identify the organizers than the perpetrators. That is crucial not only in a judicial sense, to know who was responsible, but also for the sake of counter-terrorism — to avoid as much as possible that these same organizers will be able to strike again. If it weren’t for his death during the November 18, 2015 police operation in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the notorious Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent Abdel Hamid Abaaoud likely would be prosecuted as an organizer of the Paris attacks — or in judicial terms: a leader of the terrorist organization behind the attacks. He was already known to be a ‘field commander’ of Islamic State’s foreign operations department, also known as Amniyat, since the attack that could be foiled by the Belgian police on January 15, 2015 in the town of Verviers.(2) Another name that could have made it to the list of plot leaders, is that of the Algerian born, but longtime Sweden based Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd. He seems to have coordinated the attacks in real time from Brussels, but was killed during a shoot-out with the Belgian police in the Brussels municipality of Forest on March 15, 2016.(3)

Abdel Hamid Abaaoud (left) and Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd, two organizers of the attacks who are proven to be dead

A name that is included in the list of twenty defendants, is that of Fabien Clain. A converted Christian with roots on the island of La Réunion, he is a veteran of the jihadist movement in France. In February 2010, Clain was sentenced to five years in jail for his participation in a network that recruited foreign fighters for Islamic State’s predecessor Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, better known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It looks like he was radicalized while living in Brussels somewhere between 2003 and 2004. There, he met several people who later would become pivotal in Belgium’s extremist scene. One of the least known, but likely not the least important, was Rudy Emponza Bompolonga.(4) Interrogated about the departure of his son for Syria in 2013, the father of Najim Laachraoui named Bompolonga as the one who lured his son into radical Islam.(5) Laachraoui died as one of the perpetrators of the March 22, 2016 Brussels attacks, while he was known already as the manufacturer of explosive belts that were used for the Paris attacks. Clain himself is undisputedly linked to the Paris attacks, as he lent his voice to the audio recording in which the bloodshed was officially claimed by the Islamic State.

Fabien Clain, a Frenchman so important that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mentioned him by name in his April 29, 2019 video message

Clain was known by then already as a prominent member of the Islamic State’s media department, and it could be assumed that he merely served as messenger. But one detail in his text — the reference to an additional attack in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, where sole survivor Salah Abdeslam went but failed to detonate the explosives he was carrying — indicates that Clain had prior knowledge of the plot, according to the réquisitoire définitif. That same conclusion can be drawn from the video published by Islamic State on January 24, 2016. Titled ‘Kill them wherever you find them’, it showed nine of the Paris perpetrators while they still were in the Syrian-Iraqi war zone, and seven of them executing prisoners in similar attire and choreography. The fact that the media department — in which Clain was so important that the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mentioned him by name in his April 29, 2019 video message — knew beforehand that these actors were selected to strike France, is cited as another proof of Clain’s complicity.

A former French Islamic State member who was close to Fabien Clain in Syria, told interrogators: “I think that he was involved in the choice of individuals who were sent to France to carry out attacks”

Clain is only prosecuted for complicity, not for a leading role in the plot. But the latter is exactly what a former French Islamic State member who was close to Clain in Syria thinks that he has had. “Clain held a much higher position than that of propaganda chief”, the French magazine L’Express quoted from the interrogations of Jonathan Geffroy, a convert from Toulouse who returned from Syria. “I think that he was involved in the choice of individuals who were sent to France to carry out attacks.”(6) The newspaper Le Monde quoted Geffroy as saying that Clain was so highly placed within the Islamic State, that he could also propose targets for foreign operations.(7) The fact that Clain has tried to instigate another terrorist attack in France as recently as November 2018, confirms that he was up to more than propaganda alone. According to L’Express, intercepted communications between Clain and an acquaintance in his hometown of Toulouse whom he wanted to recruit as perpetrator, demonstrated his desire to set things in motion himself.(8) It is evidently justified, however, not to charge him for a leading role without solid evidence. That same can be said about several others once considered to be masterminds of the Paris attacks. Names that often circulated include Abdelilah Himich, Charaffe el-Mouadan, Salim Benghalem, Boubakeur El Hakim and Abdelnasser Benyoucef. None of them are on the list of defendants.

Abdelilah Himich was commander of the Katibat Tariq ibn Ziyad, a battalion to which three of the Paris perpetrators belonged

Abdelilah Himich is a former légionnaire, decorated in France for his military service in Afghanistan.(9) In  Syria, he became a commander of the Katibat Tariq ibn Ziyad, an Islamic State battalion to which three of the Paris perpetrators (Fouad Mohamed-Aggad, Samy Amimour and Ismaël Mostefai, all part of the Bataclan team) are said to have belonged. Known by then as Abu Souleyman al-Firansi, Himich has been suspected of being the ‘Souleyman’ about whom the terrorists discussed if they should call him during the Bataclan siege, according to the witness statement of a survivor. This seems to be corroborated by the fact that a Skype account created during the siege by Fouad-Aggad, was linked to an account with Himich’s name — without any real contact between the two detected, however. United States intelligence suspected a significant role of Himich in the plot,(10) and in November 2016 the State Department listed him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), explicitly referring to the Paris attacks.(11) But in France his implication was finally doubted, explaining why Himich is not included on the list of twenty people deemed to be responsible. According to the French Islamic State expert Jean-Charles Brisard, Himich fell into disfavor of Islamic State shortly after the attacks,(12) which is corroborated by interrogation reports that we could consult ourselves. In these documents, a Belgian Islamic State fighter who knew Himich as ‘Nescafé’ due to his heavy coffee consumption, said that he deserted in June 2016 and had a strictly local military role at that time.(13)

According to Matthieu Suc, a journalist with an extensive knowledge of the French jihadist scene, Abdelnasser Benyoucef is the architect of the foreign operations department within the Islamic State — the Amniyat. “It was him who whispered the idea to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”

Before Himich was thought to be the ‘Souleyman’ mentioned during the Bataclan siege, a childhood friend of perpetrator Samy Amimour had been named in that role. In October 2012, Charaffe el-Mouadan and Amimour were arrested together while trying to leave for Yemen or Afghanistan.(14) The next summer, they both managed separately to reach Syria. El-Mouadan soon became a poster boy of the French speaking jihad thanks to his visibility on Facebook, where he used the alias Aba Souleyman.(15) This nom de guerre and his link with Amimour made him an evident suspect, and four days after the Paris attacks, his family’s home in the suburb Drancy was raided already. The next month, on December 24, el-Mouadan was killed by a coalition airstrike in Syria. A targeted attack, apparently, since a coalition spokesman publicly identified him as the victim, and described el-Mouadan as “an Islamic State leader actively preparing new attacks against the West”.(16) But with the hypothesis of el-Mouadan being ‘Souleyman’ abandoned now, there seems to be very little evidence of any link to the Paris attacks. While he has since been convicted in absentia for joining the Islamic State (he was sentenced to six years on June 21, 2016), on the list of twenty people held responsible for the Paris massacre his name cannot be found.

Charaffe el-Mouadan, a childhood friend of Paris attacks perpetrator Samy Amimour

With what we know today, it seems logical that el-Mouadan and Himich are not considered as plotters behind the attacks anymore. But the fact that Abdelnasser Benyoucef and Boubakeur El Hakim are almost literally only mentioned in the footnotes of the réquisitoire définitif, comes as a surprise. According to Matthieu Suc, a journalist with an extensive knowledge of the French jihadist scene, Abdelnasser Benyoucef is the architect of the entire foreign operations department within the Islamic State — the Amniyat. “It was him who whispered the idea for its structure to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, Suc reported.(17) Benyoucef was an Algerian raised in France, who reportedly took part in both the Afghan and the Chechen jihad. In Syria, he became one of the highest ranking French, and likely even European members of Islamic State. In September 2020, the French newspaper Libération revealed that Benyoucef’s wife, returning from Syria, had identified him as the mastermind behind the January 2015 Hyper Cacher attack.(18) Still according to Suc, Benyoucef is also suspected to be the commissioner of the botched Verviers plot, while the réquisitoire définitif confirms a similar role in the failed attempt of Sid Ahmed Ghlam to stage an attack in the Paris suburb of Villejuif in April 2015. It is extremely unlikely that a man with his profile didn’t take part in the planning of Islamic State’s opus magnum against France, and one can only wonder whether his absence on the list of twenty is more a result of Islamic State’s cleverness to hide its traces, then a failure of the investigation. 

Abdelnasser Benyoucef, thought to be the architect of the entire foreign operations department within the Islamic State

That same question applies in the absence of Boubakeur El Hakim, a Tunisian born in France. As a veteran of the jihad against American forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he is considered as the mentor of the brothers Kouachi, who committed the massacre against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. While that attack was carried out in the name of rival al-Qaida, El Hakim had risen by then in Islamic State ranks. Within the Amniyat, he was reportedly responsible for operations in the Maghreb (he is seen, for instance, as the mastermind behind the March 2015 attack in Tunisia’s Bardo Museum) but also in Europe.(19) David Thomson, a French reporter with unrivalled access to French foreign fighters themselves during the first years of the Syrian war, including El Hakim, described him as the “most important Frenchman in the ranks of the Islamic State”,(20) while the French academic Jean-Pierre Filiu spoke about “one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists” in an elaborate portrait published shortly before the Paris attacks.(21) There’s little chance that El Hakim wasn’t somehow implicated in the plotting of the Paris attacks. But evidence again seems hard to get.

Boubakeur El Hakim, a veteran of jihad described as the “most important Frenchman in the ranks of the Islamic State”

According to the French prosecutor, “it is an established fact that Oussama Atar has had a central role in the planning of Islamic State attacks”. But as recent as March 2016, he was removed from the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters by lack of evidence that he had even joined the terrorist group

The fact that El Hakim was killed by a targeted drone strike in the Syrian town of ar-Raqqah on November 26, 2016, and that Abdelnasser Benyoucef underwent a similar fate in March or April of that same year, cannot explain why the Parquet national antiterroriste omitted them. Of the twenty individuals that are listed, five are evenly supposed to be killed. But without irrefutable proof of their death — meaning a corpse available for identification — it is common practice by now to prosecute them in absentia anyway. One of these five is Oussama Atar, a Brussels born Islamic State member of Moroccan descent, reportedly killed by an airstrike in Syria in November or December 2017. Atar is the only one prosecuted for “leadership of a terrorist organization” — and thus considered to be the most senior of all twenty people to be tried. “It is an established fact”, the réquisitoire définitif states, “that Atar has had a central role in the planning of attacks in Europe.”

Picture of Oussama Atar that was used in the attempts to identify him as the mastermind Abu Ahmad

Oussama Atar gained his first notoriety in May 2010, when his family went public with the fact that he was imprisoned in Iraq for more than five years already. “He is seriously ill and doctors say that he will die if he isn’t hospitalized”, his sister Asma told in the very first report that ever appeared about him in the Belgian press. She added that her brother had entered Iraq to provide humanitarian aid.(22) But in March 2007, a spokesman for the U.S. led Multi-National Forces in Iraq had told a different story when asked about a then unnamed Belgian citizen tried in Baghdad — later identified as Atar. “The defendant admitted that he had entered Iraq illegally to wage war against Americans and had attended anti-Multi-National Forces sermons”, he wrote.(23)

E-mail from a spokesman for the U.S. led Multi-National Forces in Iraq about Oussama Atar

After the Belgian government discreetly decided to put its weight behind Atar’s case, and his Iraqi sentence had been reduced, he was deported to Belgium on September 16, 2012. But apparently, he didn’t want to stay for long. On November 23, 2013, Atar was stopped in Tunisia and sent back, and on December 11 of that same year, he is said to have left for Syria.(24) In the réquisitoire définitif, some interesting allegations are added about Atar’s past. When he was captured in Iraq, he used the false identity of Ali Salah Mohamed. The French intelligence service DGSI is said to be convinced that during his detainment in Iraq, Atar has been in touch with Abu Mohamed al-Adnani — the later chief of operations and official spokesman of Islamic State. The Belgian intelligence service Sureté de l’Etat is quoted as saying that he even met the later caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi back then. That is a detail often published already, but almost certainly untrue. Atar was imprisoned by the Multi-National Forces in Iraq from February 2005 until July 2009, subsequently in Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca. After that, he was held in the Iraqi facilities of al-Rusafa and Nasiriya.(25) We know that al-Baghdadi was in Abu Ghraib and in Camp Cropper too. But according to the latest information, that was respectively from February  to October 2004 and from October to December 9, 2004(26) — so well before Atar was caught. The fact that Atar’s fate has often been mired in confusion, is also made clear by the fact that as recent as March 2016, he was removed from the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters — indicating that no solid proof existed at that time about even an attempt to reach the Syrian-Iraqi battle zone.(27)

On March 18, 2016, Oussama Atar was removed from the list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters, according to a confidential note

In the réquisitoire définitif, the case against Atar is built upon the premise that he is the Abu Ahmad named by several people involved as a leading organizer behind the Paris attacks. This has happened both in interrogations of other suspects, as in intercepted communications between individuals who took part in the plot. Key evidence about the role of this Abu Ahmad includes an audio message of bomb maker Najim Laachraoui, found on an abandoned laptop, in which he addressed Abu Ahmad and said: “You are the Emir. It’s you who decides.” An evenly convincing indication of Abu Ahmad’s crucial role is in the declarations of Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman, two Islamic State operatives arrested in Austria on December 10, 2015. Both confessed that they had joined the terrorist organization in Syria, and were tasked by Abu Ahmad in person to take part in an operation in France. They were grouped together with Ahmad al-Mohammad and Mohammad al-Mahmod, two of the perpetrators who died at the Stade de France. But Haddadi and Usman failed to arrive in France in time because they had been held for 23 days by the immigration authorities in Greece.

Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman, the only two people who met Abu Ahmad in person and could be interrogated about him, answered with a doubtful “yes” and a categorical “no” on the question whether he was Oussama Atar

Adel Haddadi (left) and Muhammad Usman are the only witnesses who have met Abu Ahmad in person

While Abu Ahmad’s leading role seems to be established beyond any doubt, it remains uncertain who he really was. The French investigators pretend to be sure that he was Oussama Atar, and even don’t bother using both names interchangeably in their réquisitoire définitif. There, Adel Haddadi is quoted for instance as saying that Oussama Atar came often to his Syrian apartment in the fall of 2015, while the original transcription of Haddadi’s interrogation on January 30, 2017 does not mention Atar at all — only Abu Ahmad.(28) It is unfortunate, and hopefully not done on purpose, that a reader who isn’t completely familiar with the tens of thousands of pages in the file, cannot distinguish at which point which name exactly was used. Such a reader is encouraged to believe that Haddadi has identified Abu Ahmad as Atar unequivocally, which is not the case. On the 20th of October 2016, pictures of ten different men were presented to Haddadi, asking explicitly whether one of them was Abu Ahmad. Haddadi pointed to a picture of Atar indeed, but he wasn’t sure and also raised a second possibility. “Number one resembles Abu Ahmad”, he said — referring to the picture of Atar. “But there are some differences. Abu Ahmad has a leaner face, he is older, his head seems smaller and his beard is not that thick. But the picture looks like him. There is also a similarity between picture number ten and Abu Ahmad, but it is the man in picture number one that most closely resembles him.”(29)

Screenshot from the interrogation report in which Haddadi somewhat hesitantly identified Abu Ahmad

The differences that he raised, may be explained by the picture being slightly outdated. And Haddadi’s earlier description of  Abu Ahmad as a man of Syrian descent between 38 and 42 years old(30) (Atar was 31 at that time) may be a consequence of Atar’s past. Having spent so many years in Syria and Iraq, his Arabic may have sounded like that of someone from the region, while the harsh imprisonment may have made him look older than he really was. It seems rather biased, however, to contend that Haddadi has offered a solid identification. When the same ten pictures were presented to Muhammad Usman the next day, he declared that he did not recognize any of them. “I am sure”, he said. The interrogators insisted, saying that Haddadi was “almost sure” about picture number one. “That is not Abu Ahmad”, Usman replied. “I am sure of myself.” Asked for a physical description, he also estimated the age of Abu Ahmad around forty years.(31) Which means that the only two people who did meet Abu Ahmad in person and could be questioned about him, answered with a doubtful “yes” and a categorical “no” on the question whether he was Oussama Atar.

Screenshot from the interrogation report in which Usman categorically denied that Abu Ahmad is Oussama Atar

In the réquisitoire définitif, significant attention goes to what Osama Krayem told interrogators about Abu Ahmad. “While he indicates that he has never met Oussama Atar, he pretends to be well aware about his role in sending terrorists to Europe and approving the targets for attacks”, it summarizes. Krayem is an Islamic State operative born in Sweden from Palestinian-Syrian parents. He was exfiltrated from Syria to Europe as part of the terrorist cell behind the Paris attacks, but only put into action for the March 2016 Brussels attacks, where he ultimately fled away from his target. So what exactly did Krayem know about Atar and/or Abu Ahmad? Very little, according to his interrogations in Belgium, where he was arrested on April 8, 2016. The first time when he was asked about Abu Ahmad, was during his fifth interrogation, which took place on the 13th of June 2016. Investigators told Krayem that suspects arrested with Syrian passports similar to the one that he had carried, named Abu Ahmad as the individual who had organized their departure and the manufacturing of the false documents. “I don’t know the identity of this handler”, Krayem responded. “There are many of us who bought these false passports. Many people did so at the same time as me.”(32)

Osama Krayem (right) during his stay with the Islamic State in Syria

When Krayem was asked again about Abu Ahmad a few months later by a Belgian investigating magistrate, he made abundantly clear that everything he knew came from what he had heard from his interrogators. “The police has told me about these recordings”, he said for instance when an intercepted audio message of Ibrahim El Bakraoui (the apparent head of logistics behind the attacks, with whom Krayem had been in touch himself) to Abu Ahmad was raised. “But prior to that, I never had heard about this person.”(33) When he was pushed a few days later nonetheless to tell more about Abu Ahmad, Krayem responded: “From what the police told me, I understand that this Abu Ahmad would be the person who organized the Paris attacks. But I don’t know who he is.”(34) Pressed again during his next interrogation, he declared: “The police told me about arrested people who were  shown a picture. (…) That confirms his role, and I think it is really his role. I think that Abu Ahmad is the emir of the Paris attacks.”(35) The way in which he turns hearsay into a strong conviction step by step, speaks about his eagerness to please the interrogators — while Krayem’s trustworthiness was explicitly doubted already in a June 2016 resume of his interrogations by the Belgian police. “On numerous occasions (…) we observe that Krayem adopts a narrative showing obvious contradictions with the results of the investigation. Faced with the inconsistency between his narrative and our research, he then systematically modifies his declarations”, it was told.(36)

June 2016 resume of the interrogations by the Belgian police in which Osama Krayem’s trustworthiness was doubted

Krayem’s apparent tendency to say what he thinks the other side would like to hear, became really problematic when investigators tried to elicit circumstantial evidence from him that Abu Ahmad is Oussama Atar. When he was interrogated by the Belgian investigating magistrate on the 4th of November 2016, Krayem told that Abu Ahmad most likely is a relative of  the El Bakraoui brothers (Ibrahim and Khalid, both suspected of a major logistical role in the Paris plot, and both perpetrators of the March 2016 Brussels attacks).(37) That was music to the ears of the investigators, since the El Bakraoui brothers are nephews of Atar. But Atar’s suspected role and his kinship with the brothers had been reported at that point by several media already. Media to which Krayem had access, since he told the judge that he recognized the picture of Atar from media reports without knowing him in any other way.(38) It is good to have a look at what Krayem literally answered to subsequent questions about the supposed relationship between the El Bakraoui brothers and Abu Ahmad. Questioned by the investigating judge on the 4th of November 2016, he raised that relationship spontaneously. “In my view, there must be a very close link between Abu Ahmad and Khalid El Bakraoui”, he told, “because he could only trust him if he were a person he knows very well, and we know that Khalid has organized things and was receiving instructions from Syria. He once told me that he had a person close to him, a member of his family, in Syria. I think of a family member. I think that Abu Ahmad is a member of the El Bakraoui family who has left for Syria.”

Ibrahim El Bakraoui liked to brag about high-ranking people he knew. “He disclosed to me that Abaaoud has met al-Baghdadi”, Krayem told. But if El Bakraoui was so fond of flaunting VIPs, why would he never have done that with his relative Oussama Atar?

When the judge asked him whether Abu Ahmad could be a cousin or an uncle of the El Bakraoui brothers, Krayem said: “He is very close to their family, but I can’t tell you how exactly they are linked.” And when the judge insisted to confirm that there is some form of kinship, Krayem responded: “He just told me that had someone close in Syria, and by putting the puzzle together, I understand now that this person only can be a relative, and that he is the one who gave him instructions. It is in hindsight that one understands the whole by connecting the dots: that Abu Ahmad would be the relative of the El Bakraoui brothers present in Syria and close to the leaders of the Islamic State.”(39) It is remarkable how Krayem departed from a vague assumption based on what he could have learned from media reports, and became more precise and more affirmative the more interest he felt. It is very well possible that he told the truth, and maybe he knows more than he admitted. But still, there seems to be a flaw in his story. At some point, he indicated that Ibrahim El Bakraoui liked to brag about the high-ranking people he knew. “Ibrahim disclosed to me that Abaaoud has met al-Baghdadi”, Krayem told. “They sat around a table together, so he has really met him in Iraq.”(40) But if El Bakraoui was so fond of flaunting VIPs, why would he never have done that with his relative Oussama Atar?

Mehdi Aïda, the key witness who heard in Syria that Oussama Atar had been involved in the Paris attacks

Another inside witness quoted about Oussama Atar in the réquisitoire définitif is Mehdi Aïda, a Belgian Islamic State member who returned from Syria in August 2017 after a stint of almost three years.  He seems to be the key witness, actually, since he told his interrogators not only that Oussama Atar indeed used the kunya Abu Ahmad, but also that Atar had been involved in the Paris attacks. The réquisitoire states in fairness that Aïda did not have that information firsthand. He heard it from a friend. That friend was Youssef Bazarouj, another Belgian Islamic State member, about whom the réquisitoire emphasizes that he has been close to some protagonists of the Paris attacks — implying that his allegations are trustworthy. What the réquisitoire doesn’t tell, however,  is what Aïda made of it himself. He called Bazarouj “a braggart”, the transcription of his interrogation reveals. “I can tell you that in Syria, the Paris attacks made noise”, he recalled. “In the sense that everyone was talking about it, and that everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been serving in the same brigade.” When asked what he himself believed about Bazarouj’s claims, he replied: “I think that if he really knew something, he wouldn’t have told.”(41)

Screenshot of the French réquisitoire in which the information given by Mehdi Aïda is presented as completely credible
Screenshot of the interrogation in which Aïda mocked the fact that everyone in Syria claimed they knew someone involved in the terror
Screenshot of the interrogation in which Aida called his source “a braggart” and said that if he knew something, he wouldn’t have told

In addition to all of this, it should be noted that there are several other instances in which an Abu Ahmad was named as coordinator of an Islamic State plot and/or a leading Amniyat member, without fitting the profile of Oussama Atar. The most reliable reference to an Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi being the “emir of the security department” is in a letter of Islamic State’s own ‘Council of Knowledge’ to the highest leadership, dating from April or May 2018. There, Abu Ahmad is said to have attended a meeting at an unspecified date, while the “may God accept him” after his name indicates that he had died already at the moment of writing.(42) The Abu Ahmad behind the Paris attacks is supposed to have been killed in November 2017, so it can very well be the same person — and it can even be Atar. But details from an interrogation of an Islamic State operative, published by the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq, mention an Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi being the head of Islamic State’s “foreign relations bureau” and having Algerian citizenship. The man who was interrogated is a Moroccan himself — making it implausible that he made a mistake about Abu Ahmad’s descent.(43)

Oussama Atar may well have played a significant role in the Islamic State’s terror machine, and he may have been the Paris mastermind. But with all the evidence available now, it is impossible to prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt

An Italian investigation into a plot for an attack in the city of Milan in August 2016, found that suspect Tarek Sakher received his instructions from an Abu Ahmad al-Jazairi (the Algerian). The latter told Sakher that he had ordered “the brothers of Katibat al-Qaqa” to assist with the plot.(44) That is an apparent reference to an Islamic State unit described by a captured Belgian Islamic State member as being solely tasked with “attacks outside Iraq and Syria”. One of its members, according to the interrogations of Bilal Al Marchohi by the United States military intelligence, was the Belgian Sammy Djedou, also known as Abu Musab al-Belgiki.(45) When Djedou was killed by “a coalition precision airstrike” in December 2016, the Pentagon declared that he had been “involved in facilitating the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris”(46) — raising the possibility that it was the  Algerian Abu Ahmad involved. Alternatively, investigations into the network around Abdesselam Tazi and Hicham El Hanafi, supposedly meant to organize a third major attack on European soil in the fall of 2016,(47) pointed to a Moroccan Abu Ahmad again. Here,  the one who was pulling the strings from within the caliphate was known as Abu Ahmad al-Andaloussi (the Spanish) however(48) — as if the use of kunyas was explicitly meant to lead investigators on a wild goose chase.

Screenshot from an Italian judgment about a terrorist plot coordinated by an Abu Ahmad al-Jazairi — the Algerian

If Oussama Atar really was the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, he likely played that very same role in the March 22, 2016 Brussels attacks. In the réquisitoire that the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office has written for that trial, scheduled in 2022, four individuals are named as leaders of the terrorist cell: Najim Laachraoui, Khalid El Bakraoui, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, and Atar indeed. While three of them are proven to be dead, Atar is once again the only one to be prosecuted as a mastermind — without additional evidence so far.(49) Atar may well have played a significant role in the Islamic State’s terror machine, and he may have been that mastermind. But with all the information now available, it is impossible to prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. There are sources indicating that the French intelligence service DGSI does have solid proof against Atar. But that information is said to be classified, which would mean it can’t be used in court. So, for now, the chance is real that both trials will be concluded without any mastermind convicted.

Notes

(1) République Française – Ministère de la Justice – Cour d’appel de Paris – Parquet national antiterroriste, Réquisitoire définitif aux fins de: non-lieu partiel, requalification, mise en accusation devant la Cour d’assises specialement composée, N° Parquet: P.15318000001, N° Instruction: 2113/15/20, 21 November 2019. Unless indicated otherwise, all factual information in this article is derived from this document.

(2) Brisard Jean-Charles & Kevin Jackson, The Islamic State’s External Operation and the French-Belgian Nexus, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November/December 2016. Available online at https://ctc.usma.edu/the-islamic-states-external-operations-and-the-french-belgian-nexus/

(3) Cruickshank Paul, The inside story of the Paris and Brussels attacks, CNN, 30 October 2017. Available online at https://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/30/europe/inside-paris-brussels-terror-attacks/index.html

(4) Police Judiciaire Fédérale de Bruxelles – D.R.3, Procès-verbal N° 007451/2007, 15 February 2007

(5) Tribunal de première instance francophone de Bruxelles, Jugement contre Bouit Bilal et al., 3 May 2016

(6) Claire Hache, Terrorisme: le “revenant” français qui balance, L’Express, 27 June 2018. Available online at https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/ce-revenant-francais-qui-balance-sur-daech_2020898.html

(7) Elise Vincent, Trois ans après le 13-Novembre, l’enquête touche à sa fin, Le Monde, 10 November 2018. Available online at https://www.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2018/11/10/trois-ans-apres-le-13-novembre-l-enquete-touche-a-sa-fin_5381687_1653578.html

(8) Thiolay Boris, Fabien Clain avait commandité un attentat en France en novembre 2018, L’Express, 5 July 2019. Available online at https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/enquete/fabien-clain-avait-commandite-un-attentat-en-france-en-novembre-2018_2087699.html

(9) Liabot Thomas, Abou Souleymane, un légionnaire devenu commandant de Daech?, Le Journal du Dimanche, 20 October 2016. Available online at https://www.lejdd.fr/Societe/Abou-Souleymane-un-legionnaire-devenu-commandant-de-Daech-818479

(10) Rotella Sebastian, U.S. Identifies Key Player in ISIS Attacks on Europe, ProPublica, 19 October 2016. Available online at https://www.propublica.org/article/us-identifies-key-player-in-isis-attacks-on-europe

(11) U.S. Department of State – Office of the Spokesperson, State Department Terrorist Designations of Abdullah Ahmed al-Meshedani, Basil Hassan, and Abdelilah Himich, 22 November 2016. Available online at https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/11/264498.htm

(12) Anonymous, Ex-Legionnaire named by US as key figure in Paris attacks, Centre d’Analyse du terrorisme, 24 November 2016. Available online at https://cat-int.org/index.php/2016/11/24/ex-legionnaire-named-by-us-as-key-figure-in-paris-attacks/

(13) U.S. Military Intelligence, Tactical Interrogation Report – Detainee Tarik Jadaoun, 20 July 2017

(14) Sellami Stéphane & Thibault Raisse, Attentats du 13 novembre: l’ombre d’un jihadiste français derrière le Bataclan, Le Parisien, 21 December 2015. Available online at http://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/attentats-du-13-novembre-l-ombre-d-un-jihadiste-francais-derriere-le-bataclan-21-12-2015-5391337.php

(15) The author has archived several posts from el-Mouadan’s Facebook page at that time

(16) Vilars Timothée, Charaffe el-Mouadan, un Français de Daech lié aux attentats de Paris, tué en Syrie, Le Nouvel Observateur, 29 December 2015. Available online at https://www.nouvelobs.com/attentats-terroristes-a-paris/20151229.OBS2054/charaffe-el-mouadan-un-francais-de-daech-lie-aux-attentats-de-paris-tue-en-syrie.html

(17) Suc Matthieu, Les commanditaires du 13-Novembre ont tous été éliminés, Mediapart, 6 November 2018. Available at https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/061118/les-commanditaires-du-13-novembre-ont-tous-ete-elimines?

(18) Willy Le Devin, Une revenante de Syrie désigne son ex-mari comme commanditaire de l’attaque à l’Hyper Cacher, Libération, 3 September 2020. Available online at https://www.liberation.fr/france/2020/09/03/une-revenante-de-syrie-designe-son-ex-mari-comme-commanditaire-de-l-attaque-a-l-hyper-cacher_1798519/

(19) Suc Matthieu, Les commanditaires du 13-Novembre ont tous été éliminés, Mediapart, 6 November 2018. Available at https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/061118/les-commanditaires-du-13-novembre-ont-tous-ete-elimines?

(20) Alonso Pierre, Etat islamique: “Même déçus, ils conservent des convictions jihadistes”, Libération, 2 December 2016. Available online at http://www.liberation.fr/france/2016/12/02/etat-islamique-meme-decus-ils-conservent-des-convictions-jihadistes_1532597

(21) Filiu Jean-Pierre, Boubaker Al-Hakim, le jihadiste qui veut mettre la France à feu et à sang, Huffington Post, 7 April 2015. Available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/jeanpierre-filiu/boubaker-al-hakim-daech_b_7009322.html

(22) Van Vlierden Guy, Belg (26) kritiek in Iraakse gevangenis, Het Laatste Nieuws, 5 May 2010

(23) E-mail correspondence between the author and the press desk of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, 12 March 2007

(24) Dallemagne Georges & Lamfalussy Christophe, Le clandestin de Daech. L’histoire d’Oussama Atar, cerveau des attentats de Paris et de Bruxelles, Kennes, 2021

(25) McLaughlin Erin & Haddad Margot, Arrested, freed, flagged: How top ISIS operative slipped through the net, CNN, 16 March 2017. Available online at https://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/16/europe/oussama-atar-profile/index.html

(26) Eaton Joshua, U.S. Military Now Says ISIS Leader Was Held in Notorious Abu Ghraib Prison, The Intercept, 25 August 2016. Available online at https://theintercept.com/2016/08/25/u-s-military-now-says-isis-leader-was-held-in-notorious-abu-ghraib-prison/

(27) Organe de Coordination pour l’Analyse de la Menace, OCAD/262026, Liste consolidée des combattants de Syrie – mise à jour le 18/03/2016

(28) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Adel Haddadi, 30 January 2017

(29) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Adel Haddadi, 20 October 2016

(30) Landespolizeidirektion Salzburg, Beschuldigtenvernehmung Haddadi Adel, 25 January 2016

(31) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Muhammad Usman, 21 October 2016

(32) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles, Proces-verbal subséquent 025346/2016 – Cinquième audition (Salduz 4 bis) de Krayem Osama, 13 June 2016

(33) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 20 October 2016

(34) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(35) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 7 November 2016

(36) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles, Proces-verbal subséquent 027914/2016 – Synthèse et exploitation des auditions de Krayem Osama, 27 June 2016

(37) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(38) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(39) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(40) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(41) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles-Capitale – Division de recherches 3, Proces-verbal subséquent 009366/2018 – Audition en tant que témoin (salduz 1) de AIDA, Mehdi (°15/09/1992), 8 March 2018

(42) Al-Tamimi Aymenn Jawad, Complaints Against the Islamic State’s Media Department Head, aymennjawad.org, 25 December 2018. Available online at http://www.aymennjawad.org/21914/complaints-against-the-islamic-state-media

(43) Anonymous, Former ISIS And Jabhat Al-Nusra Operative: We Tried To Get Chemical Weapons From North Korea, MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, 29 August 2018. The original publication in Arabic can be found at https://www.hjc.iq/upload/pdf/no-34.pdf

(44) Tribunale Civile e Penale di Genova – Ufficio del Giudice per le indagini preliminari, Sentenza N.859/17, 13 September 2017

(45) U.S. Military Intelligence, Tactical Interrogation Report – Detainee Bilal Al Marchohi, 28 October 2017

(46) U.S. Department of Defense, Statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Coalition Strike Against ISIL External Attack Operatives, 13 December 2016. Available online at https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/1028076/statement-by-pentagon-press-secretary-peter-cook-on-coalition-strike-against-is/

(47) Tiago Pinto Nuno, The Portugal Connection in the Strasbourg-Marseille Islamic State Terrorist Network, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November 2018. Available online at https://ctc.usma.edu/portugal-connection-strasbourg-marseille-islamic-state-terrorist-network/

(48) Royaume du Maroc – Ministère de l’Intérieur – Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire National – Bureau Central d’Investigations Judiciaires – Brigade de la Lutte contre le Terrorisme, Enquête préliminaire sur Yahya Nouri et Mehdi Regragui, 9 December 2016

(49) Ministère public – Parquet fédéral, Réquisitoire relatif aux dossiers FD 35.98.65/16 (faits commis à la station de Métro Maelbeek) et FD 35.98.64/16 (faits commis à Zaventem), 4 December 2019



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